T-Mobile USA, Inc. (T-Mobile) appeals a judgment entered on a $5 million jury verdict in favor of former employee Stephen Colucci in a workplace retaliation case. T-Mobile primarily challenged the punitive damages award, arguing insufficient evidence was presented at trial that a T-Mobile agent engaged in retaliatory conduct, or that the agent’s actions were malicious or oppressive.
Alternatively, T-Mobile argued the $4 million punitive damages award was constitutionally excessive. Stephen Colucci worked for T-Mobile from 2007 until 2014 as the manager of a store in Ontario, California. A series of incidents ranging from a medical accommodation request, defamatory comments made by co-workers, and an allegation that Colucci was running a side business while on duty for his T-Mobile store.
One day, complaining of back pain, Colucci was permitted to leave work for the day; while away, Robson recommended to HR that T-Mobile terminate Colucci for “cause” (conflict of interest), notwithstanding no loss prevention investigator interviewed Colucci or any co-workers about Colucci’s alleged side-dealings while on T-Mobile time. In making this decision, Robson admittedly bypassed T-Mobile’s progressive discipline policy, which might have included a warning or less severe consequence before resorting to termination. Information about the alleged conflict of interest had come almost entirely from the associate; at no point did anyone speak to Colucci about a purported conflict.
Unaware of any pending termination, Colucci submitted a formal request to HR for a medical leave of absence. Colucci also lodged a second complaint to T-Mobile’s integrity line, reporting that Robson was discriminating against him and neglecting to resolve the defamation incident. Undeterred, Robson proceeded with processing Colucci’s termination.
Ultimately, a jury returned a unanimous verdict in Colucci’s favor on his claim of retaliation, awarding $1,020,042 in total compensatory damages for past and future economic losses, and past and future noneconomic damages and/or emotional distress.
After review, the Court of Appeal reduced the punitive damages award to an amount one and one-half times the amount of compensatory damages, but otherwise affirmed the judgment.
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